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Dark age of women's rights in Turkey: From revolutions to oppressions

‘Men and women should always be equal’.Source: Sözcü, 2021.

Dark age of women's rights in Turkey: From revolutions to oppressions

Author: Idil Igdir


Turkey has not always had such dark times, especially when it comes to women’s rights. The great leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey and the founder of the Turkish Republic, started to grant political and social rights to Turkish women since the 1920s, making revolutions ahead of his time (Çünkü baska sen yok, N.D). Turkish women, for instance, obtained the rights to divorce, custody, and inheritance with the new Civil Code in 1926, which was based on the Swiss Civil Code, thus acquiring equal status with men in the family and society (Zambrana, 2021). Previously, Turkish men could have four wives at the same time and divorce them whenever they wanted without any legal action. This humiliating situation was abolished in 1926 with the prohibition of polygamy in the Civil Code (Birbiri, 2006). Concerning education, with Tevhid-i Tedrisat Kanunu, the law of Unification of Education”, dated March 3, 1924, girls and boys began to receive education in an equal framework (Çünkü baska sen yok, N.D). This series of substantial adjustments can therefore be interpreted as an indication of the importance Atatürk placed on gender equality and how much he prioritised it with the establishment of the Republic in 1923. The following words of his were enough to comprehend his stance on this issue: If our nation now needs sciences and knowledge, men and women must share them equally” (Birbiri, 2006).


Furthermore, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk knew from the very beginning that one of the most important steps for the secularisation of Turkey was to include women in political life. So, by freeing women from the pressure of the old conservative laws and customs, he paved the way for Turkish women to be given the right to vote and be elected on December 5, 1934. (Engin, 2021). What needs to be stressed here is that although Atatürk played an influential role in the emergence of this outcome, the real victory belonged to the women who had fought relentlessly since the Ottoman period. The pioneer of the recognition of women’s political rights after the declaration of the republican regime was Nezihe Muhiddin, who completed the formation of the Women’s People’s Party in 1923 and went down in history as the founder of the first political party in Turkey (Karakuş, 2021). 

Exactly one year before this landmark decision, Atatürk said the following, which is the clearest and shortest summary of his approach to womens rights: A republican regime means a democratic system and a form of the state. The Republic must meet all the necessities of democracy. The recognition of women’s rights is one of these democratic necessities” (Engin, 2021). Thus, despite all the difficulties and obstacles, Atatürk did not give up striving for women’s rights. In other words, the foundations of the Republic of Turkey were shaped around the emphasis on equality as a reflection of his will of democracy which he wanted to pass on to future generations.


Until recently, Turkey continued to be one of the first on the world stage in the field of women’s rights to advance the democratic order laid by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürks adopted daughter for instance, became the worlds first female fighter pilot in 1937 (Zambrana, 2021). With Melahat Ruacan in 1945, Turkey also holds the position of being the first country in the world to have a female supreme court judge (Birbiri, 2006). Furthermore, to combat and prevent violence against women and domestic violence, Turkey was the first country to sign the Istanbul Convention out of 45, mainly European, countries in 2011 (Zambrana, 2021). Regarding a controversial subject such as the right to abortion, while not first, Turkey legalised abortion in 1983, before many Western countries such as Belgium, Ireland, Spain and Switzerland (Zambrana, 2021). 


 Yet, with the economic and political shifts in Turkey in recent years, the concept of “being the first” has changed and lost its meaning. It led to Turkey being the first country to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention in 2021 (ICJ, 2021). This abrupt news came as a blow to Turkey’s women’s rights. What was once known as a progressive country, has since turned into a land of endless women’s graveyards and systematic attacks on women’s rights. In May 2022 alone, 35 femicides and 16 suspicious deaths of women were recorded in Turkey (Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu, 2022).  In the same month: Turkish actress Melis Sezen’s dress became the target of political Islamists and her dress seen as a “crime”, artist Melek Mosso’s concert was canceled due to her political stance, and, actress Ezgi Mola was fined because of her tweets about the rapist and murderer Musa Orhan.


 In the face of increasing violence and threats over the years, women in Turkey started to gather and establish associations to stand out against the system that did not protect them even when their lives were at stake. Kadin Cinayetleri Durduracagiz Platformu, We Will Stop Femicide Platform, was thereupon founded in 2010 after the brutal murder of Munevver Karabulut (Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu, N.D). The platform is now one of Turkey’s leading feminist organisations that regularly publishes monthly and annual reports on femicides. Since the scandalous decision in 2021, they have also been working on the re-implementation of the Istanbul Convention, thus Article 6284 in the country. Nevertheless, despite the legal and moral support provided by the platform, the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a closure case in April 2022, upon the request of the Associations Desk and the Governor of Istanbul (Bianet, 2022). The reason for this unacceptable attack appeared on the grounds of manifesting activities contrary to law and morals. 


Closure case against one of Turkey’s leading feminist organisations by the Prosecutor on the grounds of ‘immorality’


The closure case opened by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office in April 2022 was brought before the judge for the first time on June 1, 2022, at the Istanbul 13th Criminal Court of First Instance (Sözcü, 2022). Before the trial started, many feminist associations did not hesitate to make statements in front of the courthouse to show their solidarity and support in the face of the baseless accusations attributed to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform. Among them, the general representative of the platform, Gülsüm Kav, said (Sözcü, 2022) : 


We see the lawsuit brought against our association as a continuation of the unlawfulness of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. It was also one of the harbingers of the interventions and new oppressions on our freedoms and rights that we experience every day. That’s why this trial is the cause of all women, the whole society“.


Furthermore, as news of the closing case spread across the country, families of victims supported by the platform expressed their utmost concern and anger on the day of the trial. The mother of Ayşe Tuba Arslan, one of the murdered women, made a speech and said: No one protected my daughter. She died 44 days later. Her killers are still out there. This platform has always supported us (Sözcü, 2022). Ismail Çet, father of Şule Çet, who was murdered after she was raped in Ankara in 2018, also supported the trial of the We Will Stop Femicide platform which was held in Çağlayan courthouse in Istanbul (Hacaloglu, 2022).


While some seek this anti-femicide organisation to be shut down, lawyers continue to point out that they believe this case is a political issue, not a legal one. Esin Yesilirmak and Ipek Bozkurt, lawyers of the platform, made it clear that they view the closure case as a political matter (Staff Writer, 2022). Regarding the case, Esin Yesilirmak later added, “first, there was too much procedural flaw in the case. In other words, no investigation was conducted according to law” (Hacaloglu & Çolak, 2022). Subsequently, almost 300 lawyers from across Turkey expressed an interest in defending the group (Staff Writer, 2022).  


So, on what grounds do they accuse an association dedicated to preventing femicide and protecting women with immorality? Claims such as “ignoring the concept of family, trying to break up the family structure, carrying out immoral activities under the guise of defending women’s rights” were included in the petitions that led to the lawsuit (Sözcü, 2022). Thereafter, the hearing adjourned on Wednesday, June 1, and will resume on October 5, 2022 (Staff Writer, 2022). 


In addition, Nursen Inal, group representative of the platform, said we are under pressure from the government because we publicise, name by name, each and every womans murder” (Staff Writer, 2022). Thus it creates a contradiction with the government statistics they use to justify saying “femicide is on the decline” in Turkey. Contrary to the data announced by the government, the platform collects cases that were covered up as suicides and evaluates them under the name of suspicious death. For instance, in the annual report prepared by the platform, it was revealed that there were a total of 280 femicides and 217 suspicious deaths in 2021 alone (Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu, 2022). However, for the same year, the Ministry of Interior announced that there were 251 femicides in the country (Sirin, 2022). 



From innovation to retrogression, we witness the clocks being turned back for Turkish women as the world moves forward in the modern age. Trying to explain the oppression of women in Turkey by hiding behind cultural and religious excuses creates an environment that only belittles the situations that women are exposed to. On the contrary, women, organisations and associations are constantly working to prevent the normalisation of a non-existent culture. Therefore, the closure case filed against the platform reflects another concrete example of silencing voices that try to protect women. 


Everything we see in the world is the creative work of women”

– Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 




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